The aid was released on Sept. 11, after having been withheld by the Office of Management and Budget since early July. Instead of providing the aid to Ukraine, aid that included military assistance, the OMB sat on it, kicking out a deadline for its release over and over and over again. Even as the Defense Department became concerned that it couldn’t disburse the money in the remaining time, the hold remained.
The hold was put in place on July 12 and communicated within the administration on July 18 — and attributed to Trump. The first signs outside OMB that the aid would not move forward came on July 3, when a planned notice to Congress of its release was canceled. Inside OMB, though, warning signs came earlier, when Trump, having read news coverage of a Defense Department announcement about the aid, demanded answers about it from OMB staff members.
Mark Sandy, a career OMB official, testified that legal questions about the hold arose immediately. As soon as he was informed about the hold, he began seeking legal advice about the Impoundment Control Act. He also testified that two staff members resigned over concerns about the hold.
Despite the aid being released, the GAO, in fact, determined that the hold violated the law because it was put in place for policy, not programmatic, reasons. In other words, the defense offered by Trump’s allies — that the hold was simply a representation of Trump’s long-standing hostility to foreign assistance — was not sufficient.
“The President is not vested with the power to ignore or amend any such duly enacted law,” the GAO report states.
What’s more, the agency chastised various government departments for not complying with requests for information.
“Thus far, [Defense Department] officials have not provided a response or a timeline for when we will receive one,” the report reads. Later, it adds that “OMB and State have failed, as of yet, to provide the information we need to fulfill our duties under the ICA regarding potential impoundments of [Foreign Military Financing] funds.”
“All federal officials and employees take an oath to uphold and protect the Constitution and its core tenets, including the congressional power of the purse,” it states in its conclusion. “We trust that State and OMB will provide the information needed.”
That trust may be misplaced. The administration has repeatedly ignored requests for information from Congress. GAO, as an arm of the legislative branch, appears not to have been spared that treatment.
The GAO determination brings several aspects of the broader dispute about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine to mind. The first is that, as the aid was held last year, administration officials repeatedly indicated that they weren’t offered a reason. In testimony during the impeachment inquiry, witnesses were asked repeatedly whether they were given a reason for the hold, and they repeatedly indicated that they hadn’t been. Sandy said it wasn’t until “early September” that he was given a reason: He received “an email that attributed the hold to the President’s concern about other countries not contributing more to Ukraine.”
By then, a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine had already been filed, and Trump had already been briefed on its contents. At the end of July, Sandy, whose job included approving the disbursement of military aid, saw that power transitioned to his supervisor Mike Duffey, a political appointee.
All of this, every step of it, unfolded in the context of Trump seeking to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations that would benefit him politically. One focused on former vice president Joe Biden, a potential opponent of Trump’s in this year’s presidential election. The other focused on unfounded claims of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, which could validate one of Trump’s oldest claims about a conspiracy against him stemming from the Russia interference probe. Trump’s effort to cajole Ukraine into announcing those investigations preceded the hold on aid and, via his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, extended past the release of the aid.
For much of the time that the aid was on hold, Ukrainian officials were aware of it, perhaps as early as late July. In early September, a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was told by Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, that the aid was blocked until the investigations were announced, although, as embassy staff member David Holmes testified, they had probably come to that conclusion independently, anyway. After all, Zelensky and his team were aware in late June that Trump wanted the inquiries and knew that Sondland, among others, was tasked with getting them announced.
They may have known earlier. On Wednesday, Lev Parnas, an associate of Giuliani’s, told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that he’d informed a Zelensky adviser in May that aid would be placed on hold unless the investigations were announced. The hold was lifted only after public attention had been drawn to it — and after House Democrats announced a public investigation of the hold.
Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who is also the head of OMB, explained concretely in October why the hold had been in place after the Ukraine controversy came to light.
“I was involved with the process by which the money was held up temporarily, okay?” he said. “Three issues for that: the corruption in the country, whether or not other countries were participating in support of Ukraine, and whether or not they were cooperating in an ongoing investigation with our Department of Justice” — that is, the inquiry by Attorney General William P. Barr questioning the origins of the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
Mulvaney had earlier said that the “corruption” in Ukraine also related to unfounded theories about 2016 interference.
“No question about that,” he said. “But that’s it. And that’s why we held up the money.”
Putting a fine point on it:
- The administration didn’t offer a rationale in the moment for why the aid was being held even to officials tasked with implementing it.
- OMB staff members were concerned about the legality of the hold.
- The hold overlapped with a period during which Trump’s teams both within the administration and outside it were pressuring Ukraine to announce investigations that would benefit him politically.
- One administration official told Ukraine explicitly that aid was withheld until the inquiries were announced.
- A former member of Trump’s external legal team claims that he conveyed a similar message to Ukraine.
- Trump’s chief of staff indicated that the hold was linked to the investigations Trump demanded of Zelensky.
- As the House moved forward in investigating the situation, the administration almost entirely stonewalled requests for information.
- As the GAO investigation proceeded, it met with a similar response. It nonetheless determined that the law had been broken.
That line from the GAO report about employees taking an oath to uphold the Constitution is particularly resonant in the context of that last point. On Thursday, the Senate impeachment trial of Trump began. One of the articles on which he was impeached centers on his efforts to obstruct Congress’s ability to investigate him; on, as the article reads, Trump’s decision to assume for himself “the right to determine the propriety, scope, and nature of an impeachment inquiry into his own conduct.”
In this case, again, Trump’s team has apparently decided that it will comply with the legislative branch to the extent that it wishes.
In this case, again, that didn’t prevent his administration from being held to account.